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Red marker is a good investment at culling time

Autumn is a good time to take a complete inventory of your beef herd and think about which cows are truly profitable and which are not. Culling unprofitable cows and replacing them with replacements of better economic return is the life blood of all cow-calf operations. Producers should set up a cull priority list and effectively implement it into their operation, so better and continuous revenue by each cow in the herd is assured.

According to a recent Florida study, sound, healthy, fertile and profitable beef cows have an economically positive reproductive life through to about eight years of age, and then overall fertility slips by 10 years old, and steeply declines after the cow becomes 12 years of age.

As young cows move toward becoming 10 to 12 year-old cows, their bodies slowly break down; teeth become worn down and periodic digestive upsets take their toll on nutrient uptake. Teats and udders structures collapse from once good milk production, uterine disorders increase and repeat themselves and lameness problems seem to multiple. And as cows become significantly older, they tend to become more susceptible to various infections and disease.

Producers might prepare their own ‘cull priority list’ and ultimately start marking individual animals with a red grease marker as a cull sign. This seemingly ‘end-of-road’ mark can be made for a number of reasons.

Reasons to cull

By far, all mature cows, first calf heifers or replacement females that cannot get pregnant should top everyone’s cull list, because they clearly will not produce a money-making calf and must not remain in any viable cow-calf herd. This primary reason and other reasons of your choice for culling unprofitable beef cows might look like these examples in a well-balanced beef cow culling program:

  • Pregnancy status — A cow that is not pregnant will not contribute to next year’s basic cow-calf revenue. Until it is marketed, a cull cow adds to the deficit column of all balance sheets. Cows that routinely breed/calve outside a controlled breeding/calving season (produce less uniform and lighter marketable calves) should also be considered. Most cow-calf operations target a 90-plus per cent calving rate (season) in order to optimize incoming revenue.
  • Poor calving cows — Some cows seem to have several hard calving seasons; calf has to be pulled or the cow has a prolapsed vagina or uterus, retained placenta, milk fever or serious uterine infection.
  • Health status — Some cows are more susceptible to health challenges compared to other mainstream cows and are candidates for culling (i.e. cancer eye). Cows with contagious disease or identified as sub-clinical disease carriers should be removed. Cows with less serious chronic health problems might be culled.
  • Soundness — As cows get older, their bodies eventually wear out (as mentioned above).
  • Calf performance — Cows with one or two years of poor “doer” calves should be culled. One obvious goal of most commercial herds is to improve total saleable weaned weight of the annual calf crop.
  • Poor disposition — Aggression is heritable in beef cattle. Some cows should be culled because they are dangerous. Similarly, cows that continue to abandon their own calf every year should be culled.

Keep a spreadsheet

With these half-dozen reasons in mind, it should make sense to develop an actual spreadsheet to keep records of individualized cull activities and reviewed them annually. The goals of any useful cull cow record-keeping system should be: decide what chosen cull information is pertinent and practical to collect, collect accurate information in a timely manner, and use this information for the present and future progress of the cow-calf operation.

As producers do the cull inventory in fall, cows that are no longer economically viable to a beef cow-calf operation can realistically be culled at anytime. As a general rule cows with serious health problems (including contagious disease), persistent digestive dysfunction, and advance lameness or in untreatable pain should be culled immediately. Otherwise, the decision should be made to either sell cows before winter or put them into drylot for further feeding to be sold later.

The option to retain and put additional body weight on otherwise healthy cull cows can be an opportunity to improve their economic value that otherwise would be considered as basic salvable dollars. Although cull cows tend to vary in age, body statue, health status or have different planes of growth potential, it usually becomes a practical matter of grouping all available culls together and put a couple to a few hundred pounds of bodyweight on each cow, before they are sold as a group.

Slow gainers

If you decide to feed cull cows over the next three to four months, there are a few obstacles to profitability that must be overcome. The biggest one is that culled mature cows naturally produce very low feed efficiencies compared to younger beef animals. For example, a 1,200-lb. beef cow can consume up to 40 lbs. and more of dry matter feed to gain two to three pounds of gain.

Various field studies have demonstrated that cull cows will gain both lean and fat tissue in the first 30 to 60 days after they are introduced to a high-energy diet. After 60 days, the same cows will likely lay down only body fat and previous desired average daily gains tend to decline. It should be realized that even this modest level of performance is difficult to achieve during periods of oncoming frigid winter temperatures, which naturally diverts dietary energy away from bodyweight gain and used to keep animals warm.

Whether cull cows are kept to be fed out or sold only days after the weaning season, there is a bottom performing 15 to 20 per cent of the cows of the main cow herd that for one reason or another should be marked with a red marker, removed and replaced every year. With a growing trend toward larger beef cow herds, there should be a consistent and ample supply of cull cows, which sound contribute to the present and future prospects of cow-calf profitability.

About the author


Peter Vitti is an independent livestock nutritionist and consultant based in Winnipeg. To reach him call 204-254-7497 or by email at [email protected]



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